Oriental Orthodox Churches around the world
A BRIEF HISTORICAL SURVEY
OF THE ARMENIAN
ORTHODOX CHURCH WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE
TO THE CATHOLICOSSATE OF CILICIA
ORIGIN OF THE CHURCH
The origin of the Armenian Church dates from the
Apostolic Age. According to the ancient tradition, which is well
supported by historical evidence, the two apostles of Christ, St.
Thaddeus (John, 14: 22:24) and St. Bartholomew’s (John 1:43-51)
laid the foundation of the Armenian Church. From the first to the
third century Christianity in Armenia was a hidden religion under
heavy and constant persecution by the pagan kings and princes.
In the first years of the fourth century (A.D.
301) Christianity was declared by King Tiridates III as State Religion.
It is a widely known and well recognized fact that The Armenians
were the first nation to embrace Christianity officially”
(Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church). The greatest Apostle,
whose missionary life and work, as a living sacrifice, made this
acceptance of Christianity possible, was St. Gregory the illuminator
who has been recognized and venerated as the Patron Saint of the
CHRISTIANISATION OF THE ARMENIAN PEOPLE
This official and rather formal adherence to Christianity
had to be followed by a full acceptance of the Christian faith in
the sense of a real, genuine conversion. This was made possible
through the translation of the Holy Scriptures together with the
writings of the Church Fathers into Armenian. This highly important
task was achieved by St. Sahag and St. Mestob and their disciples
called the Holy Translators, in the first three decades of the fifth
century. Through the labours of these Church divines, Christianity
became the living and life-giving religion of the people. Thus,
the Armenian Nation became a Christian Nation in the truest sense
of the term.
In fact it is this intimate association of the
Armenian Nation and Christian faith that explains to a very large
extent the subsequent history of the Armenian People considered
in he most significant aspects of their spiritual, cultural and
national life. Particularly the continuous persecutions of the Armenians
at the hands of the non-Christian peoples and governments in the
neighboring countries of Armenia are the concrete and eloquent testimonies
to that inseparable attachment of the Armenians to the Christian
faith which could never be compromised even at the cost of martyrdom.
The Armenians in the fifth century, while fighting
against Persian Mazdeism, declared that “We recognise the
Gospel as our father and the Church Universal as our mother”.
And, indeed, this principle has been the decisive factor all along
their history which is often characterized as a “Martyrology”.
The Armenian Church in constant relation and unbroken
communion with the Universal Church, faithfully followed the teachings
of the first three Ecumenical Councils of Nicea, Constantinople
and Ephesus. In the beginning of the sixth century (A.D. 506-8),
she officially rejected the Council of Chalcedon seeing in it a
revival of the dualistic – dyophysite understanding of the
Person of Chit; a teaching which threatened to separate Christ’s
Person in two and which was closely associated with the doctrine
professed by Nestorivs who had been condemned by the Church and
whose followers were bitterly opposed by the Armenians. Since then,
the Armenian Church and the Hyzantine Church have tempted at several
times to reach a common understanding and to restore unity, but
that has not been possible because f lack of understanding of each
other’s respective positions, on the one hand, and cause of
the interference of non-theological factors in the course of negotiations,
on the other.
PERSEUTIONS AND SUFFERING
From the middle of the seventh to the end of the
ninth century, Armenia was under the Arab Moslem rule. The Church
passed through a long and hard period of sufferings. But the Christian
faith survived. From 85 to 1065 Armenia became again an independent
State under the Bagratide Dynasty. A new era of peace, revival and
prosperity flourished. New monasteries were founded: great cultural
achievements were realized. But after 1045 the Byzantine Empire,
instead of supporting and strengthening the Armenian Kingdom, adopted
a policy of subjugating and depriving it of its independent status.
Thus, the Seljuk’s – the predecessors of the Turks –
invaded Armenia and destroyed the Capital City of Ani (1065). Once
more Armenia as devastated by the Barbarian forces. Many Armenians
left their country and migrated towards western regions.
They came to settle in Cilicia where they organized
their ecclesiastical and national life under a new principality
which rapidly grew in strength to such an extent that soon it became
a Kingdom. From the end of the eleventh to the end of the fourteenth
century the center of the Armenian national and ecclesiastical life
was in Cilicia where the city of Sis was made the Capital City.
The Catholicossate had been first established in Hromkia and in
1239 was transferred to Sis. This is why the Catholicossate of Cilicia
is sometimes referred to s ‘the Catholicossate of Sis’.
TWO CATHOLICOSSATES WITHIN THE ARMENIAN
In 1375 the Kingdom of Cilicia was destroyed by
the Mameluks of Egypt. The Catholicossate continued in Sis and took
upon herself the whole and most difficult charge of the leadership
of the nation. Ceaseicss attacks, devastations and plunderings were
committed against the people of Cilicia namely upon the inhabitants
In the meantime, Armenia Major was having a relatively
peaceful time. There had been even a cultural awakening accomplished
by the monastic orders. Now that the kingdom of Cilicia had fallen
and the situation I Cilicia was deteriorating, bishops and Church
divines (Vardapets) of great influence in Armenia Major made plans
to elect a Catholicos in Etchmiadzin, the original and highly venerated
place of the Catholicossate which had ceased o function as a Catholicossal
See since 485. Thus, in 1441 they elected Kirakos Virapetsi, a devout
monk. At the same time Krikor Moussabekiantz (1439-1446) was the
Catholicos in Cilicia. Since 1441 therefore, there have been two
Catholicossates in the Armenian Church with equal rights and privileges
and with their respective jurisdictions.
THE CATHOLICOSSATE OF CILICIA IN SIS
From the fifteenth to the beginning of the twentieth
century, the Catholcossate of Cilicia continued to serve the Armenian
people who survived the invasion of the Mameluks and were subjugated
to the unbearable tyrannic rule of various Turkish chieftains, nomadic
peoples who by constant attacks kept the Arian peoples under servile
and fearful situation. Many Catholicoses (Church Heads) were even
strangled and killed in different cruel manners. These were the
hardest and darkest centuries of the Cilician Catholicossate. Nonetheless,
the Catholicossate survived and served her people in silent and
However, the authority of the Catholicossate was
very much reduced in the eyes of the Ottoman Sultans who since 1461
had recognized the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople as the
official ecclesiastical and civil authority over all the Armenian
Churches under Ottoman domination whether depending on the jurisdiction
of Etchmiadzin or Cilicia. In fact, it as the Conqueror of Constantinople,
Sultan Muhamed II, who nominated Hovakim the Bishop of Broussa,
as the Patriarch of the Armenians under the Ottoman rule in 1461.
As the politico-ecclesiastical authority of the Armenian Patriarchates
of Constantinople grew in the subsequent centuries, the authority
of the Catholicossate of Cilicia reduced on the grounds of civil
right and activities. But the Catholicos of Cilicia was recognized
as the supreme ecclesiastical Head of the Armenians in Cilicia.
The main Dioceses under his jurisdiction were: SIS, ADAANA, HAJIN,
PAYAS, PERIA (Aleppo), MARASH, (Germanicia), ZEYTOUN (Ulnia), FERNOUZ,
AYNTAB, ANTIOCH, MELITENE, OZGAT, GURUN (Kurin), CYPRUS, in fact,
all the main cities and regions of Cilicia and surrounding areas
such as Syria and Cyprus.
In spite of the intolerant historical circumstances
there have been some periods of constructive work. Two names must
be singled out in this respect: Catholicos Kirakos Atchabahian (1797-18820,
CALLED Kirakos the Great and Mekerditch Kejsezian (1871-1894) who
made great efforts to strengthen the Catolcossate with new constructions
and visited their faithful in the parishes and organized the Dioceses.
THE CATHOLICOSSATE OF CILIA IN TWENTIETH
In 1902, a new Catholicos was elected in the person
of His Holiness Sahag II Khabayan. A learned and devoted servant
of God, a member of Jerusalem Religious Community, be made heroic
efforts to organize the Catholicossate. He opened a Seminary to
prepare qualified priests for the pastoral care of a stricken people.
But a few years later, in 1909, the massacre of Adana made 30,000
victims of his faithful. Five years later, the First World War broke
out and the darkest times came back upon the Armenian people. During
the War, 1915-1918 more than one million Armenians were massacred
by the Turks. The rest were deported and dispersed in various parts
of the word. The war ended, the Armenians of Cilicia returned to
their country to rebuild their homes and reorganized their ecclesiastical
and national life. But when the French Forces evacuated Cilicia.
The Armenians could no longer live in Turkey without protection.
So again they left their homeland n 1921 and found refuge mostly
in Syria and Lebanon which were under French Mandate. The Catholicossal
See in Sis was confiscated by the Turks. Catholicos Sahag II followed
his flock. The hospitality shown towards the Arian refugees by the
Arab people was more than comforting. The friendship of the Armenian
and Arab peoples was even more firmly confirmed and strengthened.
Catholicos Sahag had no permanent residence. In order to look after
the spiritual and national needs of his people stricken at heart
by their deportation and dispersion he was forced to wander to and
fro in Syria and Lebanon. Under these circumstances, the Catholicossate
was looking for a new site in Lebanon for establishing there his
THE CATHOLICOSSATE OF CILICIA IN ANTELIAS
In 1930, the Catholicossate was established in
Antelias1 thus a new era was opened in her history with the establishment
of the full Diocesan administrative organization, the founding of
the Theological Seminary and the Community House for the training
of the members of the Religions Community and the parish priests.
The Armenian people spread all over the word looked at the Catholicossate
with hopes and expectations. The Seminary was going to be a center
of theological and Armenolgical learning from where new servants
of God would come forth to take upon themselves the sucred mission
of those servants of God who fell under recent moral blow of the
Turkish massacres. Only a young generation of fully committed clergymen
could introduce new forces of vitality among the dispersed children
of the Armenian Church.
FIVE CATHOLICOI IN ANTELIAS
In order to fulfill the great task now entrusted
to the Catholicossate of Cilicia. Catholicos Sahag II, already advanced
in age and being deeply affect by the long sufferings of his people,
asked the help of Archbishop BABGEN GULESSERIAN, who was enthroned
as COADJUTOR CATHOLICOS in 1931. Son a printing press was established
in Antelias, a monthly review under the name HASK started, together
with religious, educational and historical publications. But the
expectations of Catholicos Sahag with regard to his succession were
not fulfilled. The Coadjutor – Catholicos Badgen, who was
to succeed him, passed away in 1936, after five years of intensive
and most fruitful work.
The Archbishop of Cyprus, PETROS SARAJIAN was
nominated Vicar-General by Catholicos Sahag himself. Thanks to the
competent administration of the Vicar-General, the property of Antelias
was purchased from the American Neur East Relief which from 1922-1928
had an Armenian Orphanage on the grounds where the Catholieossate
was established. A new building for the Seminary was erected. The
Cathedral was built through a generous donation of an unknown benefactor,
whose name, Sarkis Kenadiian was announced only after his death.
A chapel in memory of one million Armenian martyrs as well as a
residence for the Catholicos were built at the same time. The Catholicossate
now acquired solid foundations in Antelias.
Catholicos Sahag passed away in 1939. He was succeeded
by the Vicar-General. CATHOLICOS PETROS I who died the following
The Second World War had already started. The
election of the new Catholicos took place in 1943. ARCHBISHOP KARKKIN
HOVSEPIANGTZ, the Primate of the Armenian Church in North America
was elected. He could not come to Antelias until 1945.
During his Pontificate (1945-1952) the Catholicossate
flourished primarily in cultural activities. The Catholicos himself
being a great scholar encouraged the higher studies in the Seminary
and gave impetus to the publishing work. Valuable volumes were printed;
he monthly review was enriched in contents: the number of the students
of the Seminary increased; the academic curriculum was enlarged
together with the addition of two years in the course of study;
new and well qualified professors were called to join the Faculty.
The scope of the work of the Catholicossate was widened. New priests
were sent to various parts of the world to serve the Churches.
Four years elapsed between his death (1952) and
the election of his successor, HIS HOLINESS ZAREH I (1956). A young
saintly and devoted servant of God, the first graduate of the Seminary
of Antelias, Catholicos Zareh was an experienced Church Leader in
Syria, having served us Primate of Aleppo for sixteen years. During
his short lived reign, most beneficial achievements were gained.
The work of the Catholicossate was extended to such communities
in the Diaspora who had been in desperate need of spiritual care
for many years. On the eager and urgent request of the Armenian
People in Iran, in Greece and a great number of communities of the
United States of America he sent young bishops and priests to minister
to them the Word of God and the Sacrament of the Church and keep
them firm to the tradition of their forefathers.
The relations of the Catholicossate with the other Christian Churches
and the Governments of the Middle East were strengthened in friendship
and through collaboration.
The Seminary was given much encouragement and
his personal insights and saintly life had a determining influence
on all students who readily entered the service of the Church by
joining the Religious Community of the Catholicossate.
It was on his inspiration and under his personal
guidance that the Catholicossate of Cilicia entered the field of
the Ecumenical Movement by participating in the World Council of
Churches and by sending observers to the Vatican Council to its
three consecutive sessions.
His close associate, ARCHBISHOP KHOREN PAROYAN,
the Primate of the Armenian Church in Lebanon was elected in May
1963. Under his leadership and through his devotion and ever growing
and flourishing activities the Catholicossate of Cilicia is continuing
to serve the Armenian Nation in faithfulness to Christ and to the
tradition of our forefathers.
RELATIONS WITH ETCHMIADZIN
During the five centuries of their distinct existence
the two Catholicossates have maintained peaceful and respectful
relations. The spirit of brotherly love, mutual understanding and
cooperation in the sacred spiritual service to the Armenian Nation
have constituted the basic conditions of and the factors for the
maintenance of the peaceful STATUS QUO in the service to the one
and the same Church.
However, a few conflicts have occurred in the
course of history (one in the 17th century, another one in the 19th
century, and a third one in twentieth century) which have been solved
in the same spirit of brotherly love and on the basis of mutual
recognition of each other’s independent status. The same principle
and spirit constitute the positive and constructive factors in their
present relationship. It must be said that the primacy of honour
of the Catholicossate of Etchmiadzin has always been, and is being,
recognized by the Catholicossate of Cilicia.
THE CATHOLICOSSATE OF CILICIA IN SERVICE
TO CHRISTIAN UNITY
Faithful to the genuine ecumenical spirit and
openness of the Armenian Church, the Catholicossate of Cilicia has
always been in friendly relationship with all the Christian Churches,
and particularly with the sister Eastern Churches. Brotherly visits
and close association between the Catholicos of Cilicia and other
Church Leaders in the Middle East constitute one of the most eloquent
pages of the history of the Cilician Catholicossate.
Being sensitive to the urgent need of the Churches
for mutual understanding, cooperation and unity, she joined the
World Council of Churches in August, 1962 at he Central Committee
meeting in Paris. Now she is fully engaged in the common task of
the Churches in search of Christian solidarity and unity. From the
first session onwards she has sent observers to the II Vatican Council.
It gives her the greatest joy to see now the eagerly
expected Conference of the Heads of the sister Oriental Orthodox
Churches convened by His Majesty Haile Selassie I the Emperor of
Ethiopia. She believes that the coming conference will be a real
blessing for all the sister Churches involved, and it will prove
also a great value for the cause of Christian unity as a whole which
above all is the will of our common Lord Jesus Christ.
The Oriental Orthodox Churches Addis Ababa conference January,